Billings' story in children's book

In 1970, Janice Greer Rakestraw was injured so seriously by a drunken driver that physicians wondered whether she would be able to walk or talk.

Rakestraw was a teenager in Burbank, Calif., when doctors told her she wouldn't finish high school.

"They said I would be slow, maybe retarded," she recalled.

The accident crushed Rakestraw's face, broke her back and left her with a number of other injuries. She's spent much of her life rehabilitating in one way or another.

Proof of her recovery can be found in her new book "On Billings' Farm," which tells the story of the late John Billings in the style of a children's book, complete with illustrations by the author.

Billings was one of Ashland's best-known and longest-lived residents when he died at the age of 97 on Sept. 16, 2009. He lived his whole life in Ashland, and his farm, with its prominent pond, can easily be seen from Highway 99 on the north side of town.

Rakestraw is a friend of the Billings family and was inspired to write about John Billings while sitting with him at the Fourth of July parade in 2009.

"He had pneumonia and could hardly breathe, but he was going to that parade," she recalled.

Rakestraw helped the old farmer through the busy day. She said her own long recovery helped her understand him.

"It was nice doing that for him. He liked being part of the farm, not being stuck in bed," she said. "I asked, 'Can I write your story?' "

Billings agreed, and the result is a collection of his memories, history and accomplishments, told as a children's story.

Rakestraw knows all too well how difficult recovery can be. For about 20 years after she was injured, she was unable to work. She began her rehabilitation singing in bed. The singing developed into a lifelong love of music, and she has been a member of a number of vocal groups. She also began to draw as she recovered.

Today, there's little about Rakestraw to suggest the magnitude of her injuries, although she has some awkwardness in social situations, her husband, Steven, said.

Her family has a long history in Ashland. Her great, great grandfather was Elbert Greer, publisher of the Daily Tidings from 1911 until his death in 1926. She moved to Ashland with her family because she and her husband had always been attracted to this part of Oregon, and she had a desire to reconnect with her past and reclaim a family tradition steeped in reading and writing. The couple moved to Ashland two years ago with their children, Kiersten, 17, and Christopher, 14.

Christopher helped edit "On Billings' Farm." After reading an early draft, he felt there was too much history and not enough whimsy for a book intended for children.

"If you're going to make a kids' book, you have to make it creative," he said.

Rakestraw went back and added segments with drawings of animals on the farm and added musings by the animals, including a touching anecdote about Billings' dog, who kept searching around the farm looking for his trusted friend long after Billings' death.

On the final page, Rakestraw drew a picture of Billings riding into the sunset on his tractor.

Her husband said the book is also the story of Rakestraw's emergence as a creative force.

"This is a homecoming for her," Steven said. "It's her rebirth, reclaiming her legacy."

Her own doubts about her ability evaporated with completion of the book.

"I wasn't really happy until I had it in my hands," Rakestraw said. "Woo hoo! I'm not retarded!"

Rakestraw will sign books and serve apple pie at noon on Sunday, June 27 at Allyson's Kitchen, 115 E. Main St. For information call 727-2815. "On Billings' Farm" is available on, and lists for $21.95.

Myles Murphy is an editor and reporter with the Daily Tidings. Reach him at

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